Milstein: great sounds played quietly APPRECIATION

December 23, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

In a world increasingly filled with loud and vulgar violin playing, the death of Nathan Milstein leaves a legacy of quiet eloquence.

Milstein, who died Monday in London at the age of 87 of a heart attack, was not only one of the greatest violinists of the century but also one of the bravest. Violinists play an instrument whose carrying power in the hands of a master is less than that of a trumpet in the mouth of an 8-year-old. While most violinists strive for volume in an attempt to make themselves heard (and, just as frequently, to call attention to themselves), Milstein was never afraid to create the kind of quiet that music often demands.

No one who ever heard him play one of Bach's unaccompanied partitas and sonatas in New York's Carnegie Hall can forget the way the great violinist would go down, down, down in volume until he approached the limits of audible sound. Part of the power of that extraordinary music-making was the presence of 3,000 awestruck listeners holding their breath as the violinist droppedto a quadruple pianissimo.

In many respects Milstein's death is the last chapter in the story of romantic style. Although he was only a little older than such violinists as Issac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Joseph Shumsky and the late David Oistrakh, Milstein belonged to an earlier age. Whether it was World War I or whether it was the Russian Revolution, something early in the 20th century put a quietus to romantic expressiveness. The romantic violinists -- whether Fritz Kreisler or Milstein's fellow Russians, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel and Mischa Elman -- modeled their playing on the human voice; the violinists who followed them -- however beautiful their playing may have been -- merely made the violin sound like an instrument.

Milstein may have enjoyed the longest career of any violinist in history. Almost all string players begin to deteriorate seriously by the time they are 60. But until a broken arm a few years back led to his retirement, Milstein was playing with undiminished virtuosity and intensity. With the possible exception of the slightly older Heifetz, who had stopped playing almost entirely by the 1960s, no fiddler ever matched Milstein's combination of classical taste and technical perfection.

It is strange, therefore, that of this century's genuinely great violinistic careers, Milstein's was the most modest. He was completely uninterested in publicity and his bearing on stage -- composed, aristocratic and elegant -- was such that it was unimaginable to think of him schmoozing with the audience as some of his latter-day successors do. But whenever Nathan Milstein appeared in public, every violinist who could be there was.

Of the great Russian players, he was the least "Russian" sounding -- at least in the mistakenly "Russian" sense of throbbing emotionality. His playing -- while it was fiery and incisive -- was always disciplined and controlled by his remarkable musical intellect. And his playing had the kind of note-to-note integrity that one more often associates with a great composer than with a performer. But if Milstein never played down to audiences, no one knew better than he how to reach them.

"It's not enough to do something expressive, you must first create a need in the audience for what you're going to do and then do it," Milstein's student, the violinist Oliver Steiner, remembers the great violinist telling him.

When Milstein played Saint- Saens' familiar "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," it was not the great speed and accuracy -- though his performance had those qualities -- that made him so dazzling and that so raised the emotional thermostat. A little before the music called for a relaxation in the beat, Milstein would accelerate bit by bit by bit -- until he created in the listener a need to hear a deceleration. When that slow down finally arrived in this Spanish-sounding piece, a listener experienced a melting feeling that made him feel almost as he was losing control of his hips and was about to begin dancing deliriously.

And the greater the music got, the greater Milstein got. Every violinist in history has recorded the Bach solo works, but it is the Milstein versions -- he recorded them twice -- that are the favorites of most aficionados. When he played the opening slow movement of the composer's G Minor Sonata, Milstein made one think of the beauties of baroque architecture, treating the anguished chordal outbursts like columns and the legato lines between them as arches.

This was the kind of musical communication in which it was possible to forget that sound was being made. When Nathan Milstein played the violin, it was heart to heart and brain to brain.

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